Canada is nearly halfway toward meeting the Harper government's target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, according to projections found in an Environment Canada report released today by Environment Minister Peter Kent.

Ottawa is a signatory to the Copenhagen Accord, which requires Canada to cut its emissions to 607 megatonnes, or 17 per cent below 2005 levels, by 2020.

The report suggests Canada is almost 50 per cent of the way toward meeting its 2020 goal, compared to 25 per cent announced a year ago.

"This is the result of our government's realistic, sector-by-sector approach to reducing emissions, while continuing to create jobs and encourage economic growth," Kent told reporters Wednesday.

Greenhouse gas emissions are now expected to fall to 720 megatonnes in 2020, instead of the 850 megatonnes that would have resulted from no government action.

The 720-megatonne estimate is 65 megatonnes lower than the total projected at this time last year. However, 720 megatonnes still represents only a three per cent overall reduction in emissions since 2005. More changes are needed to reach the 17 per cent target.

The report attributes the reductions to some recent shifts in the economy, including less projected growth for some heavy emitters. Emissions trends broken down by province show that some provinces where economic growth has lagged, such as Ontario and the Maritimes, are seeing greater relative drops than other provinces where the economy has been stronger, like Alberta and British Columbia.

However, Environment Canada says it's starting to see a "decoupling" of emissions and economic growth, thanks to changes in behaviour by consumers and businesses alike.

The reductions noted in this year's report also reflect a revised starting point, since new Statistics Canada data shows actual emissions were lower in 2010 than previously estimated.

Land use changes included for 1st time

In the past, Canada didn't count land use changes or forestry in its calculations, but now, following international negotiations at last December's climate talks in Durban, South Africa, it can. Approximately 25 megatonnes of the new reductions detailed in the report are owing to this recent inclusion.

"This is a major milestone for Canada," Kent said.

Projected changes in emissions by sector, 2005-2020

SectorMegatonnes% 
Electricity-41-34
Oil and gas4528
Manufacturing-6-7
Transportation11
Buildings56
Agriculture-1-1
Waste and others24
New land use/forestry calculations-25
TOTAL EMISSIONS-20-3

The remaining 40 megatonnes of reductions result from new federal vehicle regulations – some of which are still a work in progress, such as those for heavy-duty vehicles – and new federal and provincial coal-fired electricity regulations.

New vehicles and new building construction are far more efficient than they were in the past. 

Kent said the government's approach was to focus first on regulating the largest greenhouse gas emitting sector, transportation, which accounts for 24 per cent of Canada's total figure. Canada has been working in lockstep with the United States to regulate the auto industry and implement new standards for renewable fuels.

The new regulations for light automobiles and trucks alone are expected to cut emissions by 10 megatonnes a year between now and 2020, Kent said. By 2016, when a second set of regulations come into force, there could be an additional three megatonnes, the minister added.

The federal government also proposed regulations for the coal-fired electricity sector last year, but the final regulations are not yet in place despite being promised by last June.

NDP environment critic Megan Leslie called the inclusion of the coal-fired regulations in the projections "a pretty sketchy projection" given that "we haven't even seen the regulations yet."

Kent suggested Wednesday that the "legislative funny games" played by opposition parties that delayed the passage of the federal budget in Parliament and the "mechanics of government, this being summer" have delayed the coal regulations, which "should be published in the next few weeks."

The electricity regulations come into effect in July 2015, "more than enough time" for the industry to accommodate them, the minister said.

Provincial contributions

Quebec is implementing a cap-and-trade system to encourage a low-carbon economy, while British Columbia has implemented a carbon tax.

By 2020, the report forecasts, Quebec will have the lowest per-capita emissions among Canadian provinces and territories. Alberta is projected to have the highest.

"Credit for the progress we have made since last year’s report goes to provinces who are stepping up their game in a vacuum of federal action on emissions reductions," said Christian Holz, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, in a statement emailed to CBC News. "When it comes to federal policies, little to no progress has been made towards their weak goals."

Holz also highlighted the "adjusted accounting rules this year" with respect to the land use and forestry calculations, "which make it appear that we are further along than we actually are."

The soon-to-be defunct National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NTREE) reported in June that action taken by the provinces and territories is responsible for three-quarters of Canada's greenhouse gas reductions. Its study was commissioned by Kent in 2011.

The round table took issue with the patchwork of climate plans in place across different jurisdictions, and warned that meeting the federal government's 2020 targets was unlikely unless Ottawa stepped things up with its own stricter emissions standards.

In its dying months, the national round table issued another report last spring also taking aim at the government's slow pace of regulating emissions.

Quebec Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia said that taking credit for progress that didn't result from federal policy changes gives "a sense that the government's rummaging through its files and looking for things like that [land use and forestry] credit that it can use to make itself look good."

"How many times did we hear about a carbon market, in at least three of the last four election campaigns? We still haven't seen a carbon market. I find this is all becoming a bit tiresome quite frankly, and less and less people are finding these statements credible," Scarpaleggia told reporters at a Liberal news conference Wednesday.

Oil and gas regulations coming next year

Sector breakdowns in Wednesday's report show that without regulations, oil and gas emissions will grow by 45 megatonnes, or 28 per cent, between 2005 to 2020.

Kent said draft regulations for the oil and gas sector would be ready by next year.

"Our talks have progressed very quickly with the oil and gas sector, both conventional and the oilsands," Kent told reporters.

"Hallelujah, it's about time," said Leslie, Kent's opposition critic, while adding that she's not optimistic that the oil and gas regulations will have teeth.

The minister declined to suggest a specific target for this heavy-emitting industry, and its recent efforts while emphasizing the need not to compromise jobs and economic growth.

Canada's federal environment commissioner, Scott Vaughan, reported in May that Canada's emissions in 2020 could be 7.4 per cent above 2005 levels, and reaching the 2020 target would be "unlikely."

Kent said Wednesday that Vaughan's report was not based on the department's most recent figures from April, on which this emissions trends report is based.

Vaughan took issue with the federal government's "sector-by-sector" approach to regulating emissions.

P.J. Partington, a policy analyst with the Pembina Institute's climate change program, echoed that call Wednesday, saying the federal government's policies "still leave a huge gap" between its commitment and where emissions are actually heading. 

"Continuing to rely solely on sector-by-sector regulations will be too slow and too inflexible to meaningfully close that gap in the next eight years," Partington said in a media release.

With files from The Canadian Press